Dramatic intensity drives 'The Runner Stumbles'

July 16, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

Who killed Sister Rita?

Eventually that burning question is answered in "The Runner Stumbles," the courtroom drama in production by the Pasadena Theatre Company at Baldwin Hall in Millersville.

But the identity of the saintly nun's killer is revealed only after an intense, lengthy, sometimes trying journey to the truth.

Sister Rita is a devoted servant of Christ, an enthusiastic, youthful teacher who seems to embody what the love of God is all about.

Arrested and put on trial in the murder in a rural Michigan courtroom back in 1911 is the tortured priest, Father Rivard, a brilliant Augustinian scholar who is far better at articulating dogma than he is at conveying a sense of God's presence in the world. His emotional cassock is so tightly buttoned that it has shut off the flow of spiritual nourishment to his soul.

Father Rivard seems willing to employ any means necessary -- gross insensitivity, verbal abuse, even self-mutilation -- to remain out of touch with his inner self and at a distance from this gentle, beautiful nun who is obviously lighting up his entire emotional console.

But would he resort to murder?

Mark Frost Bernier's Rivard is, frankly, not an easy character to watch, so wide is the swath of emotional devastation he leaves in his wake. Bernier imbues Father Rivard with the lethal mania of one whose anger is perpetually kindled by those who manifest the compassion he has lost.

Janise Lettau, in her PTC debut, is very good as Rita. For all the nun's goodness and light, Lettau never lets her become a cloying cliche. Her final moments -- even the ones we don't see -- are terrifying indeed.

The remainder of the cast ranges from top-notch to serviceable. Irene Patton is exceptionally good as Mrs. Shandig, the strange but devoted housekeeper whose testimony proves crucial to the unraveling of the mystery. Deb Szymkoski and Lisa Anne Mix are also excellent as the young women who shed light on Rivard's character in flashback scenes.

As a group, the men are less imposing. Robert Bayer is effective as the priest's well-intentioned lawyer, save for some inaudible mumbling in his drunken soliloquy. The sheriff, however, seems to be working much too hard on his sneer, and the district attorney's oratorical skills are better suited to a Harvard commencement than a rural Michigan courtroom.

The production looks and moves well, though the cast -- especially the women -- might want to project more clearly.

For fans of lilting poetic imagery, "The Runner Stumbles" will leave something to be desired. But its dramatic intensity will remind us -- in case we need it -- that mankind just isn't very nice to its saints.

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